New Year -- New Resources

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Holidays

My sister gave us a wonderful present this year, the DVD of Young At Heart: You're Never Too Old to Rock, a documentary about the Northhampton, Mass. chorus with an average age of 80 which has toured the world singing classic and new rock songs, from "Forever Young" to "Schizophrenia."

And check out Karen Armstrong's article about the original message of Matthew and Luke's birth of Jesus story in the LA Times. (Just like Amahl and the Night Visitors!)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Reading (and listening)

If you grew up watching Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC (as I did), and you long nostogically for a Christmas more about giving than buying, you should be aware that several CD's of the opera are available, including the original 1951 cast album. If you like Operettas, you can't do much better than "This is my box."

I picked up some biographies for reading over the holidays, among them Jay Parnini's William Faulkner, and like all the best such books, it is making me want to go back and reread my favorite novels, and to catch up on the ones I only knew from movies, like his autobiographica, final novel, The Reviers.

I also didn't know that the 23-26 yr old Faulkner ran the Ole Miss campus postoffice very incompetentl (because he spent most days shut in his office writing), and you have to wonder if his fellow Missisippian Eudora Welty might not have had an inside joke in mind when she wrote "Why I live at the PO."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Last minute holiday book reviews

The Guardian newspaper just released a list by English editors and agents of some of the best unread books of the last decade.

It is full of interesting suggestions -- fiction and memoirs -- by American and British writers. A real treat for the avid reader who doesn't just want to read what everyone else is reading.

Check it out:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Incredible Afghanistan battlefield photos

This photo essay posted on the Denver Post Blog provides incredible insight into the harsh conditions under which Marines fight the Taliban. Pictures were taken by AP photographer David Guttenfleder over several years. He returned to the US this July.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Buy more to be able to read more

Let's be clear, if you read books and worry about how the industry that publishes them will survive, there is only one thing you can do:

Buy more books.

It doesn't matter where, what kind or in whether electronic or print.

Here's the proof, as reported in the industry web site,, today.

None of The National Book Award nominees for fiction -- novels who have been voted the best of the year by a panel of other writers and critics -- have sold more than 18,000 copies so far, and most well under that.

We may not agree these are the best novels above all others that we would read ourselves, but I doubt any of us would think that any aren't worth reading -- especially in a world where Sara Palin is earning millions of dollars.

We need to vote for quality with our pocket books.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I laughed so much I cried

If you haven't already, check out Ellis Weiner's Shouts and Murmurs piece in the 10/19 New Yorker, "Subject: Our Marketing Plan."

Yes, it's about book publishing. And I am afraid it's all too true.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More books on the Web

The industry newsletter "I Want Media" mentions the Huffington Post's new book section (partnering with the New York Review of Books). Thank goodness digital media is making up for the book pages being dropped every day in print media.

Check it out:

HuffPost to Expand Into Oprah's Territory Mediaweek The Huffington Post is launching a books section anchored by an Oprah-esque book club led by CEO Arianna Huffington -- dubbed "Arianna's Reading." The section also features advance reviews from the New York Review of Books as part of a content-sharing deal.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I had no idea that the Poetry Foundation sponsored video adaptations of poetry on U Tube until I read about it on

Check out the link there to Heather McHugh's annimated poem, "Above the Space Bar," which is delightful!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

E book readers

Publishers Weekly (The book industry trade magazine) has announced the wireless e-book reader linked to Barnes & Noble will be for sale at Best Buy next month.

It is a European model using the Verizon 3G network, and unlike Amazon's Kindle, it will read multiple e-book formats, just as the Sony Reader does.

IREX Unveils New Wireless Digital Reading Device
By Calvin Reid -- Publishers Weekly, 9/23/2009 7:20:00 AMIREX, a European developer of digital reading devices, will today release the details about the new digital reading device it plans to launch in the U.S. market that will allow consumers to wirelessly download e-books as well as newspaper content through a partnership with Barnes & Noble. The device will be unveiled at a roundtable discussion in New York City featuring IREX CEO Hans Broder, B& president William Lynch, Penguin CEO David Shanks and others (including this reporter). The new device has a 8.1” black & white e-ink touchscreen; offers wireless 3G connectivity through the Verizon network and will cost $399. The IREX DR800SG and will be available for sale through Best Buy chain by next month. The new device has been developed to compete directly with the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader devices. Better known in Europe than in the U.S., IREX is entering the U.S. market a bit late. But the company hopes to overcome that disadvantage through its partnership with B&N, the unique size and quality of the touchscreen device and a long history of developing and enhancing e-ink technology. The device will also offer wireless access to more than a 1,000 newspapers through the NewspaperDirect service. The new IREX device has another advantage: it has a Qualcomm Gobi chipset that allows the device to use wireless networks outside of the U.S.—unlike the Kindle or the Sony Reader. IREX is also reportedly planning to offer an affordable color-screen—current color e-ink devices can cost nearly $1,000-- as early as 2011.

Friday, September 4, 2009


I must admit I’ve been a little taken aback by two articles I read recently about the trend for teachers to encourage “free reading” instead of even some books on a recommended reading list, especially in middle school. One article discussed the new metrics which a private company has developed in order to encourage kids to compete for points. One Harry Potter is worth three To Kill a Mockingbird.

I do believe that reading anything with pleasure has to precede learning to love reading. Stories come before novels; comics are good stories, so are movies and even some video games, just as songs come before poetry.

Nevertheless, why there should be any “all or nothing.” “classics or bestsellers,” in a classroom I have no idea. And giving 50 points to the child who reads three long bestsellers but fewer to a student who reads three short books by Jane Austen, Ernest Hemmingway, or J.D. Salinger makes no sense.

I don’t believe that we all have to read in lock step the same “classics” in order to be educated Americans. I do, however, think that John Grisham is more interesting when you have already read Harper Lee. Twilight should not replace The Telltale Heart. Lots of romance readers would agree having read Pride and Prejudice makes Sex in the City funnier.

Most importantly, I think that teachers should encourage students to read the books they find hard to read as well as the ones they read for fun. Thinking is often hard.

I taught Mrs. Dalloway twice to when I was a Freshman Comp Teaching Assistant at UCLA. I know that very few kids came away even liking Virginia Woolf as a result. But everyone of them was pleased with having learned to read a “hard” writer, and by virtue of having learned that, they were better writers too.

Learning that reading and writing require work but that hard work is also rewarded is the lesson that makes sitting in a classroom interesting, worthwhile, and valuable.

That tackling challenges is part of going to school, that’s what I’m afraid we may be losing. I know most people will not be “English majors,” much less professors, editors, or even teachers. Some will be watch more movies in a year than they read books in a decade. Some will spend more time coaching basketball or being volunteer EMS medics than they will reading.

But everyone needs to be able to tackle a challenge, and a good lesson in hw to do that is reading a book you do not know you will like; reading a book because people you like (assuming you don't hate all your teachers) tell you it’s a good book; reading a book because stories written in another time and place help us learn to live better in the here and now.

That's what I don't want to lose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thriller writer of the decade

If you are not already hooked on Steig Larsson's THE GIRL WHO.... series of thrillers, you should be.

I haven't read anything as good as THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (now in paperback) or THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (just out in hardcover from Knopf) since I discovered Smiley and John Le Carre or Adam Dalgliesh and P.D. James.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Recommended reading

Two of these are new, and one is just one of my favorites:

THE BOOK OF WILLIAM by Paul Collins is a fantastic trip through the almost 500-years of Shakespeare's First Folios from publication, through obscurity, to lasting fame.

AMERICAN-MADE: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor is a survey of the New Deal perfect for anyone who wonders why we need one now.

and the classic is:

The World of Nagaraj by R.K. Narayan, stories set in the mythical Indian village of Malgudi, a kind of South-Asian parallel universe to Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yiddish characters.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sony E-Reader competiton good for book publishers

Ordering an e-book instantly from Kindle may be fun,

But being able to re-read that e-book on any device is priceless.

Sony’s recent e-book and e-book Reader announcements are the single best news book publishing has had in years. As the NYT article reports below, more books in more formats from more sources is the key to making e-books a viable format in an industry that can still afford to pay writers for writing books:

New York Times 8-13-09
Sony Plans to Adopt Common Format for E-Books By BRAD STONE
To counter, Sony and other device makers as well as several publishers will use the same technology, called ePub, for digital book sales.

“If the business terms and conditions end up being dictated to publishers by one bookseller who has a chokehold over the value chain, publishers are going to have a hard time staying profitable,” said Bill McCoy, general manager for Adobe’s digital publishing business.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It occurred to me the other day that our vocabulary is all wrong in this debate over e-books – in the same way it’s misleading to talk as if America actually had “healthcare, when we really only have very expensive sickcare.

We don’t read e-books or hardcovers. We read what people write.

Books – whether print or digital, whether downloaded or mailed, whether new or old – are just one way that writing reaches the people who want to read it. Books are just one way that people get paid for their writing.

Books are not what I read; they are where I read things that interest me. I find writing in books interesting, because I like writing that reflect the author’s authentic research, originality, and talent. I like the sentences and paragraphs they choose to combine to make a book; I like the way their long story begins and ends.

I think if books are to survive we have to stop thinking about books as a “consumer product.” Format usually follow price, but the quality of what’s inside a book does not.

We need to start thinking about books as a place where writers write and readers find them. If printed books morph into e-books, that’s really not a lot of change.

If we don’t want to lose writing that’s long, and thoughtful, writing that requires time to create – if we want writing we such as we find in War and Peace, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dreams From My Father, or A Room of One’s Own -- we have to find a way to subsidize the places readers can read what such writers write.

I submit that we could learn how to live without books. It’s reading and writing we can’t live without.

And the possibility of that impending loss is what we should talk about.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

For a very interesting essay about how a book differs from a Web search, see this article in Foreign Policy:

Why We Don't Need To Reinvent The Book For The Web Age
The book format may have already evolved (along with the web) far beyond what we would have ever expected

Monday, April 27, 2009

If you like historical fiction, I think you'll enjoy Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia, which gives voice to the silent Italian wife of Aeneas in Vergil's poem. For any reader who wants to go beyond the faux mythology of Twilight, this novel captures a young woman's emotional daring beautifully. The story has gore, sex and life after death, but also love, honor, and real poetry.

(One of my favorite pieces of literary trivia is that LeGuin is the daughter of the anthropolgist who wrote Ishi the Last Yahi, and all her fantasy and science ficiton novels are grounded in an exquisite and authentic detailed speculation about how other cultures might live and worship.)

I've loved Biblical archeology stories ever since I first read about the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is strange (as Susan Gubar points out in her new literary biography of Judas), that so few of us raised within Christian churches were ever taught to see Jesus as a Jew before the Scrolls raised those issue.

Whether you think the historical Jesus was a Rabbi who disliked the Temple hierarchy, a secret Essene, a Jewish Zealot, or the divine founder of Christianity, the debates over the scanty historical evidence are fascinating.

An entertaining, non-academic contribution is Nina Burleigh's new book, UNHOLY BUSINESS, which explores the Israeli legal case for forgery against the antiquities dealer behind two of the most important finds of 21st century: a unique engraved stone which purported to be contractor's list for the First Temple (Solomon's); and a stone ossuary dated to 60 CE and inscribed in Aramaic as belonging to "James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus."

Long before the trial, both the finds were political footballs, the one validating the Western Wall as part of the Temple Mount beneath the Muslim Dome of the Rock; and the other proving Jesus lived and (equally divisively) that he had a "brother" -- the Protestant view -- not a "cousin" -- the Catholic view. Burleigh gives a clear idea of both the theological and criminological issues, with very likable Israeli detectives as central figures.

If you’ve been to Israel, Burleigh will help you relive some of the archeological highlights; if you haven’t, you’ll want to go.

(There's a lovely quote in the book from a minister who, although he volunteers on archeological digs every summer, says, in the end, faith is faith precisely because there is no proof; he doesn't worry that his faith can be disproved by science, and therefore, I gather, science can't be his enemy.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

There's a wonderful piece in today's Chronicle of Higher Education about teaching literature by Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

He argues that the critic's role is not to apply a particular critical framework (e.g. a Marxian view of Blake) but to lead a reader to understand a Blakean view of Blake, an Emersonian view of Emerson:

I said that transformation was the highest goal of literary education. The best purpose of all art is to inspire, said Emerson, and that seems right to me. But that does not mean that literary study can't have other beneficial effects. It can help people learn to read more sensitively; help them learn to express themselves; it can teach them more about the world at large. But the proper business of teaching is change — for the teacher (who is herself a work in progress) and (pre-eminently) for the student.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There's a second article about Google News in the NY Times:

No one would use on any search engine, whether Yahoo or, at all if there weren't News to read on the web; don't the web sites people click through to read deserve credit from for bringing people to the search engine, where they read ads?

Search engines need content; search engines make more money from ads than web sites do; therefore serach engines should share ad income with content providers.

Why doesn't a newspaper deserve royalties for a click through to their site? It's as easy to do as it is for Google Books to pay authors.
I've long thought that it's backwards to pay more for your internet access than for what you read on the internet. I believe paying for news will make it more valuable. Cheap is often worth less. Why should Google make all the money when no one would go to Google News if there weren't good news stories to read?

See today's New York Times:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I just caught up with two new paperback reprints, Drew Gilpin Faust's THE REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: Death and The American Civil War and Germaine Greer's SHAKESPEARE'S WIFE.

From the Drew Gilpin Faust I learned that not until the tremendous losses of Union soldiers in the Civil War did public care for the returned bodies of soldiers become ritualized. The post-war effort of major figures, such as Walt Whitman, to find and return home the remains buried in battlefields created ceremonial respect for the "fallen" unlike any civilian displays hitherto.

This fact was all the more moving for me, because I live in a house built circa 1750. Three young men from the family living there during the Civil War -- two brothers and a son-in-law -- fought for the Union. Only one survived, and they are commemorated twice in graveyards: once, in the large cemetery, among memorial stones for each soldier from this Connecticut Town who died; and again, in the small family burial ground two miles from this house, with mother, father, grandfather, and sisters. I don't know if their bodies were returned.

From Germaine Greer's imaginative historical "biography" of the much-maligned Ann Hathaway Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon, I learned:

Ø how little evidence there is for any "facts" about William Shakespeare's life and his feelings his wife;
Ø how even the "second-best bed" legacy in his will may not be the insult critics have always said it was;
Ø it is as likely a supposition that they married for love as the idea William Shakespeare hated his wife;
Ø it is plausible that Ann raised and supported his children as a faithful and financially savvy spouse, letting him make a career in London that would have been impossible anywhere else in England.

Just turning Shakespearean legends on their heads and learning how many Elizabethan women did more than just survive hardship (and their lot was harder) is worth the read. Whether or not you accept any of Greer's more fanciful ideas -- that Ann Hathaway was the subject of some of the sonnets or that she helped finance the publication of the First Folios out of the estate -- you will want to reread all the plays in a new light. Especially, I think, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I enjoy comparing novels and their film adaptations -- even when I don't think the film an improvement. So after being one of the last people to get to see SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE before it left theaters, I ordered the novel by Vikas Swarup, originally entitled Q&A. The novel is very different, both more sentimental and more realistic.

Paradoxically, you appreciate how the film improves the story's cinematic and thematic cohesiveness, even though the Bollywood and Hollywood elements are clichés. The novels White Tiger and Sacred Games seem to me to be much more original and complicated novelistic portraits of India's class and gender wars. Sacred Games is particularly well written.

FYI, I think one of the best film adaptations is THE PLAYER (directed by Robert Altman, starring Tim Robbins), which Michael Tolkin adapted from his own novel of the same name. The novel is a better novel and the film a better film precisely because of the differences between them. One of the things that amused me is the fact that the cell phone conversations which are so important to the movie didn't take place in the novel because it was written before they became ubiquitous.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Something most of us probably knew: reading -- even for six minutes -- is a better way to relax your heart than listening to music or playing a video game, drinking tea or taking a walk.

Dr Lewis, who conducted the test, said: "Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Synchronicity and speculation in fiction

William Gibson is one of the founders of "cyberpunk" science fiction. His new $10 paperback (and a bargain at that price), Spook Country, is probably one of his most optimistic novels in the genre. He prides himself on writing about the "near future," one in which the technology he describes already exists in proto-type (like the bicycle made out of paper in Virtual Light).

In Spook Country, the background technology is virtual reality, "locative art," but the dangerous uses to which such art is put -- by the media, the government, terrorists and organized crime -- requires non-violent intervention from self-appointed guardians of our civil rights.

On a minor note of synchronicity, I had just heard a piece on NPR about the popularity of a new cuisine Vietnamese Pho noodles, when I proceeded to read a chapter in which characters comment on the quality of the "pho" they are eating. As usual, Gibson's book (first published in 2007) is well ahead of the curve. Bouncing from lower Manhattan (with a fantastically realistic chase amid the Union Square farmer's market) to Sunset Boulevard and the Vancouver waterfront, Gibson opens a window on a new kind of outlaw gypsy family, one with Chinese-Russian-Cuban roots and the protection of vodoo gods, martial arts, and iPods.

Monday, March 9, 2009

For more about how professional news writing (if not conventional newspapers) can survive into the next decade, see this excellent article in The American:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A day without writers, a web without "content"

As I have mentioned before I am perturbed by the illogic of those who say they don’t read “newspapers” because they get only their news on the “Internet.” The issue is not where we read news but what news we read. To prove it, I urge all network TV and print media to go dark for one day and show us what we would be missing.

Click through on a Google News item, and chances are you are reading news from a news media with salaried reporters, whether NPR, Associated Press, NY Times, Washington Post, or ABC and MSNBC. Even the Wall Street Journal lets you get some content for “free.” We may not pay directly by subscription and we may ignore the advertising, but we certainly “borrow” news someone else has paid for.

Why don’t we pay a cent to news sources, but we are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a month in phone, cable, and cell fees? Those subscriptions come with absolutely no guarantee of Internet content. Why should Google get all its content for free? Wouldn’t you benefit from insisting that some of that money go to the people who make it worthwhile to use the technology you pay for?

Stop arguing over whether most of us read on paper or on a computer screen. Start asking what news we are willing to pay for. Google pays no one who its users want to “search.” It shares no advertising income with the most popular web sites which attract its customers. We pay millions of dollars a year to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Cablevision, Dish Network, ATT, Verizon, Apple, iTunes, Samsung, Blackberry. Wouldn’t we all benefit from insisting that some of that money go to the people who make it worthwhile to use the technology we pay so much for?

The logic of paying for content was proved by Google’s recent settlement with the Author’s Guild, in which Google has agreed to pay royalties to the copyright holders of books that can be searched in their Reader.

We need to have a day when all news websites supported by non-internet business models go off-line. For one day, we would not be able to read free on the Internet news that is paid for by print and broadcast media. Make us go out and buy a newspaper (if we can find one). Make us wait until the “News Hour” on broadcast TV to find out what happened in Congress or on the stock market today.

If all those non-Internet news sources were to disappear, we would notice. People in Denver are already noticing the blank pages on their local internet, headlines The Rocky Mountain News used to provide Imagine how much international news we wouldn’t be able to read if the NY Times and ABC, NBC, and NPR News web sites went down?

Nothing is truer in American than “you get what you pay for.” If we don’t pay for our news on the web, what kind of news will we get? What do we lose by demanding our subscription or advertising fees being shared with the people who write the words we read on the Internet?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Showalter's new literary history of American women writers

Elaine Showalter has a new book out, A JURY OF HER PEERS: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. It is a comprehensive, chronological overview of American novelists and poets, more documentary than literary criticism, but some of the sections on well-known writers like Alcott, Stowe, and Wharton are particularly excellent.

Unlike Showalter's first -- and revolutionary -- book on British women novelists, A Literature of Their Own, this volume does not fundamentally alter the way you will read every book discussed, but it is a delight for the "lost" writers who are rediscovered and its portraits of women's friendships.

In start contrast to their Victorian and Edwardian sisters across the Atlantic, many American women did manage to earn a living (at least for a while) as writers and to also become mothers. But it was at quite a cost, including the deaths of children or of the mother in childbirth, or a precarious widowhood. Too many ended their lives in poverty and silence. Without Jane Austen's well-connected brothers or Virginia Woolf's 500 pounds a year income, these women lived through the difficult political and economic times and bitter racial unrest of a young nation -- and they did it all without birth control.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Anthropologist Blaffer-Hrdy and the mothers of us all

I have always read an equal amount of non-fiction and fiction, academic and popular, frontlist and backlist. I find it hard to read a new book without wanting to explore what the author has written before or what others have written on the same subject. To me the ability to range across an entire library is what appeals about e-books, much more than portability alone.

If you read this way, you will want to read anthropologist Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy's forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, as well as her first two. I can't make a better argument than Natalie Angier in today's NY Times article, In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue (

Monday, February 23, 2009

I am intrigued by the number of people who answer the question "What do you read?" with: "I don't read [newspapers] [magazines] [books]. I get my news on the Internet."

If the question were "what do you read on paper"? that would be an answer.

This is, by the way, apparently, Sarah Pallin's excuse for why she couldn't answer Katie Couric's question about what magazines and newspapers she read. Mail delivery to Alaska is slow; so she has to read stories on her computer.

But the question really has nothing to do with whether you read a paper page or on a screen. The question is What not Where do you read.

You are really being asked: "What sources for news do you trust"?

If you get your news on the Web, do you click through on Google News headlines to articles from the Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, NYTimes, National Review, Atlantic Monthly, ABCNews, NPR?

If you do, then you are reading magazines and newspapers, and you even "read" TV news on their web sites.

And if you read news "free" on the Web, who pays the people who write it?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I strongly urge people to listen to the podcast of NPR's Connecticut program, "Where We Live" today, which was a discussion of the future of the book in a world of electronic media:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The movie of Virginia Woolf's novel MRS. DALLOWAY is an amazing translation of book to film. British actor Eileen Atkins wrote a screenplay which uses the camera to follow the characters exactly as Woolf used her "stream of consciousness" method to describe one day in London. Probably the only significant difference in the adaptation is that Septimus is clearly shown to have PTSD flashbacks of combat, while in the novel he merely has paranoid delusions that he is “pock-marked with vice.” If you have read MRS. DALLOWAY and never quite understood why Septimus is ill, the movie will make that clear.

The parallels between shell-shocked WWI soldier Septimus Warren Smith and society hostess Clarissa Dalloway are intentionally subtle in both book and movie. There is no universal symbolism behind it all. They are a simple example of synchronicity, a random proximity between people or things that exists only because an outside observer notices the similarities. There is no deep, preordained reason these people meet, as there is the entire backdrop of the history of Ireland, the myth of the Wandering Jew, and the evolution of Catholic liturgy, when Joyce’s Stephen meets Bloom.

MRS. DALLOWAY is simply the story of one day in London when several old friends happen to reunite – and to reconcile -- after long separations. They end up together at a dinner party, where their hostess overhears a self-important doctor complain that he was late because an inconsiderate patient killed himself, and only we readers know the man was Septimus. As readers, we even know why he did, and we credit Clarissa for guessing why Dr. Bradshaw might drive a man to prefer suicide to treatment.

When I taught MRS. DALLOWAY to sophomores, the women would often ask how Clarissa could possibly be happy to have chosen Richard over Peter. They couldn’t imagine not preferring a romantic failure. They rarely noticed Clarissa had been at least as much in love with Sally. There are no meaningful coincidences as in a Dickens novel; Septimus is not revealed to be the son of the woodcutter who accidently killed Clarissa's sister, who was actually their bastard brother. Unlike a 21st-Century fantasy novel, Clarissa wasn't Septimus's lover in a previous life. Richard is not a secret Death Eater. Nor does Peter actually live in an alternate universe where Clarissa married him, and Septimus is the son they never had.

Sometimes the best plot is life as we live it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I heard a piece on NPR's "Morning Edition" today about poverty among the Navajo nation and their hopes for using "stimulus" infrastructure money to improve roads, provide clean, in-door water, and construction jobs to reduce the 50% unemployment rate which is sure to rise in this recession.

It made me think of Tony Hillerman, whose mysteries remain for me my most vivid portrait of the landscape and culture of the indigenous Southwest. Like many mystery writers, Hillerman had a devoted following but no bestselling success until many books into his series. When SKINWALKER got a New Yorker review (at the time a rare place to praise genre fiction), I was working for a university press, exclusively on non-fiction, and mysteries had become the fiction I read for pleasure.

I was delighted to discover a contemporary writer whose books were set in the rural West, as opposed to post-industrial inner-cities or evil-sheriff controlled small southern towns. I worked with a woman who knew a lot about Native American cultures, and she gave me an enthusiastic endorsement for the way Hillerman's books describe ancient Navajo and Hopi rituals and every day 20th-Century reality.

I was hooked. When the pollution from uranium mines became headline news, I already knew about its devastating affect on Navajo miners. When I met an artist and filmmaker who made remarkable discoveries about astroarcheology at Chaco Canyon, I knew why the original theories about what destroy had Anazasi civilization were being turned on their heads. I learned the public health lesson -- listen to your elders -- from how the Navajo told doctors that the Hantavirus became epidemic any winter after a bumper crop of acorns. I heard about code talkers well before Hollywood honored them in a movie.

Most of all I came to respect the enormous diversity and continuity of the many Southwestern tribes, the Hopi, Apache, Pueblo, and Dene (as the Navajo call themselves). While Sergeant Jim Chee learned the "Blessing Way," I learned about a culture of herders who survived without warfare and whose poeple understood why one had to keep trying to keep nature and humans "in balance" before "Earth Day."

When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I was sad there would be no more books, but I know of few writers who have left behind a legacy which documented so well a way of life through such enjoyable storytelling.

I believe his stories will last well into the the 2100s as a history of this part of America during the last few decades of the 1900s. His mysteries will have more to tell us about our past than Agatha Christie does about rural English villages or Dashiell Hammet about corrupt Hollywood police.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I learned how to make friends and get over enemies from books.

If someone takes advantage of you when you thought you were doing them a kindness, you may just have to chalk that up to "paying rent to your ideals," as Margaret says in E.M. Forester's Howard's End.

It is sometimes "the tender pain of unfulfilled possibilities" which binds friends together, as Anna says in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.

And sometimes, as Virginia Woolf says in The Waves, "When we sit together close, we make an unsubstantial territory."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How I read to survive.

I have been addicted to books since I first read "Look, look Dick. See Jane run." I took a book to my first elementary school "slumber party," and my high school yearbook tag was "Have you read?" If you've never asked that question at parties or you wouldn't think to answer it while watching the Super Bowl, you probably won't want to read my blog.

If you already know of something you have read which you'd love to tell me about, let's blog. I'll be talking more my favorite books (listed below) next week, beginning with Virginia Woolf's MRS. DALLOWAY, which also has one of the best movie-versions of a novel I've ever seen. (No, the movie is not THE HOURS, as good as that and the book it is based on are .)